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Archaeology: Where is it going?

Image Credit : Markus Milligan

Where is archaeology going? As archaeologists, it’s not exactly in our nature to postulate about the future. Written by James Spry

The past, of course, is kind of our thing. “Learning about our past will guide our future” – or other such anecdotes, are the bread and butter of any discussion between an archaeologist and an inquisitive member of the public.  Yes, this is true and it’s what archaeology is all about. It’s the passionate plea to learn about the world our ancestors lived in instead of dawning too much on the scary and ever changing present. Let’s be honest, every time we turn on the news or, heaven-for-bid, accidentally witness the  homepage of the Daily Mail website, with its too-fat-too-thin celebrity updates, we are hardly inspired by thoughts of the future.

It’s all too understandable why we inadvertently reminisce about a past life we never lived or engross ourselves in a material culture and that we will never full understand. And it’s such a drive to immerse ourselves in the past that has made archaeology so damn popular, why thousands of people donate their weekends to walking up and down muddy fields and why millions of us are now terrified what we will soon have to watch ‘I’m a Celebrity Pop Idol’ on a Sunday night instead of letting Phil Harding show us his unique X-Factor.

But wait. Change happens. Whether we like it or not it’s happens, and as our profession more than any tells us, its how we adapt to change that matters more than anything. Again, referring back to one of our pitches to Joe Public, we study archaeology because it teaches us about change, how to adapt to change and how to potentially learn from the mistakes that changes can cause.

The problem is however, as the archaeological profession stands on a knife edge now more than ever, are those who will carry the torch for us muddy kneed and broken finger nailed enthusiasts in the future, really practicing as we all like to preach? By ‘those’ I mean the young men and women currently being fast tracked though our university system who will undoubtedly form the core of Project Officers and Heritage Consultants of tomorrow.

Look at any job advert within archaeology, from field staff to Project Managers, and a degree is nearly always listed as a necessity; therefore I believe that making such an assumption is justifiably valid. So, if the current undergraduate generation will be making the major decisions on our past in the future, are they really being prepared, or preparing themselves, for such responsibility?

The impending removal of Time Team from our screens demonstrates how much archaeology is changing. Source: WikiCommons.

Time Team – Source: WikiCommons.

I must refer to an article in the ‘Times Higher Education’ by Marilyn Palmer, current Emeritus Professor of Industrial Archaeology at the University of Leicester, and previous head of the department. She correctly highlights the lack of current fieldwork being taught by universities and that current degrees are “not relevant to the needs of the archaeological profession” and that most students graduate to work in unrelated sectors. I must wholeheartedly agree with such an assessment.

Undertaking an undergraduate degree in archaeology is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable things you can do and you will never stop re-telling the stories of you first department led field school. However, a degree is an academic award not a vocational qualification and therefore should we really be surprised that they no longer adequately equip students with the skills required to work in the field? Realistically, no we shouldn’t.

University departments are judged by league tables and academic marks, not how well someone can dig a feature and draw a section. As a result, when we think about it, universities are fulfilling their side of the barging by teaching what they sell: and academic qualification. For this reason they should not be held responsible for the ‘under qualification’ of current undergraduates. And for this reason they should not be held to blame for the minimal amount of students who actually go on to work in archaeology once they have graduated. This responsibility lies with one person: the students themselves.

We all know that there are far more students taking archaeology degrees than there are jobs available. Therefore, the fact that so few actually go on to peruse careers in archaeology is perhaps not such a bad thing. However it is those who do that we should be worried about. Yes, their university education will teach them how to learn, manipulate and regurgitate vast amounts of information and opinions in order to gain that elusive first. The question is how do they go about gaining the skills and experience that will actually get them a job? And when they get one, are they really in touch with archaeology today: the people involved, the reasons to dig or not to dig and the various ways in which people get involved with archaeology, be it on a amateur or professional level? Without properly understanding these issues it is worrying to think whether the decision makers of tomorrow will indeed make the right decisions concerning the protection of our profession in the future and the protection of our heritage in the past.

Are current students gaining enough field work experience? Image Credit : Markus Milligan

So, what is to be done? To begin, let me say that all is not so bleak. Programmes like the Council for British Archaeology Community Archaeology Bursaries Project are leading the way in getting the unemployed, and predominately young, involved in the future direction of archaeology. However again, a degree or relevant experience is usually required. Therefore, for those students who really, really, want a future in professional archaeology, they must initiate the opportunities for themselves; and the opportunities are, let’s be honest, endless:

Number one, your university will always be able to provide more fieldwork or lab based opportunities for you than they initially advertise. But wait, “I’m a poor student with so much work to do” I hear you say. Ok, that just does not cut. In total, university terms dates take in around seven months of the year, leaving five in which to work and gain this much needed experience. And in reality, even during the term time an undergraduate archaeology degree is hardly the most time consuming of tasks, no matter how much you try to persuade your parents it is. So, take some initiative and ask your favourite lecturer about any potential opportunities and I guarantee that they will be thrilled at your enthusiasm.

Number two, Britain, more than and country in the world, is jam packed with wonderfully run and immensely enjoyable local amateur fieldwork groups who are absolutely desperate to involve more students. Most of these groups cost very little to join, provide a good level of training and can be found in nearly every region of every county in the country. So, find one, join one and learn from those involved. You will not regret it, as much for the numerous cups of tea and light hearted debates as for the fieldwork skills you will develop. You will also learn how wonderfully diverse the archaeological community can be; not just fellow students with marks in mind.

Number three, attend conferences and events. I recently attended such an event that was full of a diverse array of exhibitors and experts, from metal detectors and field walkers to aerial photographers and creative writers. However – and this was supported by the general demographic attending the event – each of these groups highlighted a lack of student involvement as a major issue which threatened not only their future existence but also the successful future of archaeology itself. This is sad. Attending such events is a prime opportunity to network, get your name out there to those who matter and get involved with any number of amateur and professional organisations who can help add that extra string to your archaeological repertoire.

Community Archaeology : Image Credit Markus Milligan

There is no recipe for success in archaeology, just an adequate desire and, more importantly, the right attitude. The current undergraduate generation – actually, most younger members of society – are being raised in a society that conditions us to accept short term gain and demand answers placed into out laps on a golden platter. As a result, the archaeologists of tomorrow are becoming increasingly short sighted in their actions today.

Yes, gaining employment and becoming successful in archaeology will always be an uphill task. But I ask what is wrong with that? Those who reach these goals will have earned it and along the way will hopefully have encountered a multitude of different ways in which archaeology can shape the lives of others as well as learning relevant skills themselves. Thus, whereas our passion for the past drives what we do, we must look to those in the present and future in order to determine how we do it; it is what we do in the here and now that determines how our past and future will be perceived.

Written by James Spry

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  • Kris

    I am a student in Archaeology at Bradford University and I can agree that actual digging has never been taught in the curriculum. We have had opportunities to go and take part in excavations during the summer (in the first summer is was compulsory despite it not being in the semesters). Unfortunately, the main problem with this is money. The excavation work is nearly always far away and requires accommodation which some (probably most) students cannot afford. I'll just pull out an example. 3 of the 4 projects that we could choose in our compulsory fieldwork cost over £1000 and this being at the end of the academic year, many students would have spent this money by now. I was lucky and managed to get a train ticket but that meant that for those 3 weeks to placement was for I had to be up at 5pm and I wouldn't be home till 8pm. Hard work but I enjoyed it. My point is that the majority of placements require lots of money spent to reach the location which a lot of students won't have till they're earning and even then it's debatable.

    Of course, there are plenty of places which don't charge for tuition etc. but a lot of the stuff that would count requires dedication and money. As passionate about archaeology as I am, there are a number of projects I've had to miss because of lack of money and I'm better at saving my money than most students, having not been into overdraft yet and in my 3rd year.

  • Rebecca

    Remember that great feeling when (knee-deep in dirt, or when surrounded by grand vistas of forest, coast, or desert) you first felt that you understood at least a glimpse of a past community? Those were the key moments for me in becoming an archaeologist and developing this level of understanding took time, work, experience, cuts & bruises, and education. Not too mention great mentors! Archaeology is indeed a pairing of academic and real-world education/experience and I've been concerned about a loss of these fundamentals based on recent destructive actions of some highly educated yet shockingly field inept archaeologists (specific cases here, not referring to all). Distressingly, they are hiding their inexperience by suggesting there is a difference between "field" archaeology and the higher pursuits of theory and planning! How on earth an archaeologist could attempt one without the other is beyond me. By evading such fundamental experiential skillsets they come up with the most ridiculous notions about human-environment interactions, interpretation, the value and appropriate management of records & collections, and how & what to communicate with the public. Worse, they seem to bear little or no responsibility for the damage they have done. This is probably my greatest concern for it delves into some sort of ethical decay, and that scares me the most. If many others are having similar concerns then we may have a big problem.

  • ELC

    Whilst this article in interesting, and does effectively highlight what is likely to become a major a problem in the field in the future, to me it also typifies the current problems in the field. The focus is entirely on the skillset archaeologists need in the future to dig. Where is the training in community archaeology, participatory research, public outreach, ethical standards (usually covered in only a couple of weeks in their first year?)
    We are turning out archaeologists who can volunteer in order to gain the physical digging skills they need, but who have no idea how to work with the public, how to share their results, how to move beyond the approach of worshiping at the Temple to Science to a more inclusive archaeology where the past actually is open to all. I doubt most undergraduates could even tell you what participatory research is, never mind how to conduct it. Whilst the attitudes of many archaeologists are exemplary, there are just as many whose attitudes to archaeology are entirely selfish and are conducted to the detriment of local communities across the world.
    If we are to have any hope of maintaining the rhetoric about the past guiding the future, we must learn from our own past as archaeologists, as well as our shared past. Given the massive destruction sites are experiencing across the world, and the rate at which many local communities are being deprived of their heritage, we need to rethink not just our methods, but our fundamental approach both to teaching and to practice.

  • James Spry

    Hey there to all, thank you for your comments, I will respond individually as you each have raised issues that I would love to have expanded on in the article but i had to keep it as an article and not an essay!!!

    Kirs: I believe you find yourself in a similar situation that I was in as an undergrad two years ago. I was completely self funded during the three years, with no help via bursaries or family and during my first year and a half the only excavations i came across were way beyond what i could afford as i had no cash to spare. This was despite working part time during term and full time in the holidays! Anyway, through a lot of searching online i managed to find several projects that were either free to participate in or we no more than £30 and were within driving distance of where i was studying. I even set up my own small community project to very little cost but a lot of fun! Most of these were local community based projects, and whereas i agree that they cannot always provide the same standard of training provided by a field school, most will at least be able to teach you some skills and experience that are worth putting on your CV. For example, there are numerous projects throughout the country looking for students to come and do a weekends test pitting or geophys and will charge very little or nothing at all. I know that this does not match a full scale training excavation, but from my experience in commercial archaeology, being able to read simple contexts, fill out context sheets and do technical drawings are the keys skills that most community projects will be able to teach you. Whereas the first port of call should always be your university, i highly recommend looking at community projects in your area, they are much, much cheaper and you will be surprised at how much you will learn and the contacts you will make :)

    Rebecca: I couldn't agree more. I have dug with many students who have very little understanding of the practical application of what they are doing because they are under the notion that their academic qualification has taught them all they need to know about archaeology. Some of the best excavators I have met in commercial archaeology have no academic qualifications yet have been digging to a very high standard for a decade or more. I think this is the point: speaking practically, you do not need a degree to know how to be a good archaeologist and students need to realize that. Employers will always be more concerned by your experience and skills and i really want undergrads to realize this. However, as i have stated, most job adverts now specify an arch. degree as a minimum qualification, which is why the article is aimed a current students who aspire to be the archaeologists of tomorrow. By joining local community projects students will gain experience of how to use archaeology to interact with the public and really understand what archaeology is all about :)

    ELC: The main purpose of the article is to try and help students who are looking for employment in archaeology in the future and gaining skill sets are the most important way of doing this. However, i hope to have made apparent the importance of being involved in community projects, not only to learn skills but also to understand the impact that archaeology can have on the wider public. I am a supervisor for the MOD rehab project 'Operation Nightingale' so i am more aware than most how well archaeology can do this. The project has the well being an benefit of the soldiers and their families as the primary concern, with the archaeology coming in a very close second! I think that there is a real lack of the teaching that you are suggesting in current universities, with outreach programs lagging behind academic research. I just hope student will start to realize the importance of the points you have made and go out and find the experience for themselves! :)

    Again, thank you for your comments. If you would like to press your point further i would highly recommend writing an article for the site.


    James :)

  • Zack

    Hi James,
    I'm wondering, who are you addressing this blog post to? Your reply to the commenters suggest that you hope to encourage students who *really* want to be archaeologists someday, after the 7-10 years of graduate work on top of their undergraduate years, plus the strong possibility of having to endure post-doc positions and further unemployment down the line. If your goal is to encourage the next generation of archaeologists, why do you antagonize them?:

    "The current undergraduate generation – actually, most younger members of society – are being raised in a society that conditions us to accept short term gain and demand answers placed into out laps on a golden platter. As a result, the archaeologists of tomorrow are becoming increasingly short sighted in their actions today." This quote was taken from the second to last paragraph in the above article. You must think very highly of yourself, given the fact that you were an undergraduate student only two years ago, mucking about among the lazy youth.

    I don't blame students for choosing not to pursue a long and tedious career path if they are being told that they don't have what it takes right off the bat. You may be right, an undergraduate degree may not provide a specialized skillset if students follow the prescribed path set out for them. That's why we need to excite them to expand their experiences. We need to give them the opportunity to realize their own potential by provoking them to *do* archaeology, rather than write a 20 page paper on a topic that seems the least boring, only to receive a C- because they missed an important piece of the literature or failed to notice a particular connection. [as a side note, if you account for the knowledge gained by reviewing the corrections and suggestions that, if included in the paper itself, would supposedly result in an A+, and perhaps give students a chance to improve their work past the deadline, they will have gained far more knowledge than what constitutes the difference between a C- and an A+]

    Your persistence in suggesting that fieldschools are the utmost way to engage undergraduates is very narrow-minded. When I went on my first dig, I was tossed aside as yet another brat that was considered most useful as manual labour and a source of funding than as a pupil. What really got me excited was having the opportunity to *do* archaeological research, experience the dreadfulness of data entry, run my analyses, and actually generate a piece of research that I can refer to when discussing my work with faculty members in my department, fellow graduate students, or my even my parents and grandparents. If we want the next generation to keep the discipline alive, we have to show them that archaeology is worth doing, that they're contributing something.

    Furthermore, if you want to encourage public interest in archaeology, don't elevate the experience out of their reach. The current rhetoric is that we're 'knowledge producers', delivering the past to them in a bite-size format. That is a terrible way to foster public recognition. Carl sagan became an acclaimed popularizer of astrophysics when he showed people of all ages why things are as they are. He could have just said that there are 8 planets in the solar system, described them, and left it at that. But he didn't just do that; he went in depth, explaining how we know what we know, re-creating the experiences that led to profound discoveries. He also made sure his viewers realized that there is so much more out there to discover, and that the next generation of astrophysicists, and the infinite succeeding generations after that, will be able to answer the unaddressed mysteries of the universe.

    Like Sagan , we have to tear down the wall that divides the PhD holder from the layman. Our degrees give us a methodology and a framework to work within, but people peering through the glass don't have this same experience that is ingrained through years upon years of graduate-level and tenure-track indoctrination. If we show them how we know what we know and field questions about the methodology, the jargon, or the logistics, instead of lugging an artefact around town that has little relevance to the guy on the street while reciting what's written on the placard next to it, people may scratch their heads and think to themselves about the value that archaeology brings.

  • hspheritage

    Super thoughts!

    Not to forget the ongoing IfA Workplace Learning Bursaries that are helping many people learn the necessary skills and attitude towards heritage.

    For tips and guidance getting your foot on the ladder look out for the IfA Next Generation special interest group which has been set up specifically to help people gain experience!


  • geoff

    “Attending such events is a prime opportunity to network, get your name out there to those who matter and get involved with any number of amateur and professional organisations who can help add that extra string to your archaeological repertoire.” Then again: who can afford to these days?
    And I’m at the point where, in order to get a job, I’ve been advised to hide my publications, lectures, stipendia, etc.

  • Mandy R

    I think this post is spot-on. I have been working in cultural resource management in the States for about 10 years. I have been volunteering on digs since I was 16, and I continue to do so today. I realize attending conferences and events can be pricy, but it’s an invaluable way to meet colleagues and hear about current research. There have been many years where an archaeology conference was my only vacation.
    Young archaeologists should take all the opportunities they can to gain experience and interact with the public on those projects. Traditional university curriculum often does not include training in career options outside of academic archaeology. Students need to find creative ways to broaden their experiences outside of the confines of the ivy-covered walls. Archaeology is a rewarding career field, but no one’s going to hand you a job. Hard work and passion will help any archaeologist reach their goals.